Why Conflict Is Good–And How to Manage It

Most people avoid conflict. Why?

There are many reasons, with fear at the heart of them all:

  • Fear of tension
  • Fear of hurting others
  • Fear of rejection
  • Fear of escalation of tough issues
  • Fear of a break in the relationship
  • Fear of an unexpected outcome, perhaps tougher to manage
  • Fear of being viewed as a troublemaker
  • Fear of retaliation
  • Fear of having to deal with difficult consequences

These fears are understandable. So we end up avoiding it like the plague.

“In my work with leaders and their teams, I’ve discovered that a universal talent is the ability to avoid conversations about attitude, behavior, or poor performance.”Susan Scott, Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life, One Conversation at a Time

Conflict avoidance is widespread in organizations and teams. Signs of it in action:

  • People hold back and withhold opinions.
  • Meetings are boring or lame because people don’t really engage.
  • Team members don’t challenge each other.
  • Teams slide toward mediocrity since recurring issues never get addressed.
  • Leaders don’t invite differing views.
  • Some people are allowed to remain silent during meetings.
  • People say what they really feel only behind others’ backs.
  • Managers don’t get critical information.
  • People get cynical or burned out because the same problems keep reappearing.
  • People develop blind spots because they never get the feedback they need that’s tough and necessary.
  • People sense that the leader is abdicating responsibility by letting some things remain undiscussable.

Do you recognize these signs in your context? Here’s the problem: conflict is good for teams. In fact, it’s essential.

Author Patrick Lencioni writes about a conflict continuum, ranging from artificial harmony on one end to mean-spirited personal attacks on the other, with most organizations leaning toward the former. The ideal conflict point is in the middle.

Productive conflict is what we need. Respectful conflict. Conflict grounded in trust. Conflict centered around shared goals, not egos or agendas.

Conflict can’t be productive without high levels of trust. How can you feel comfortable airing out the real issues if you don’t trust the people in the room? Without that trust, and the productive conflict it allows, how can the team drive toward shared commitments, accountability, and results?

With high trust and a focus on shared goals, we can channel conflict toward the pursuit of truth (what’s really going on here?) and the quest for high performance, instead of feeble attempts by fragile egos to notch points.

Managing conflict is hard because most people run away from it or get triggered by it, allowing stimuli to hijack their response. It’s uncomfortable because it elicits a physiological response: chemicals, hormones, blood flow, and heart rate signal “Danger, danger!”

Part of the job of leaders is to create an environment where people feel comfortable engaging in conflict instead of fleeing it. Better yet, viewing it as an asset. As a potential advantage.

Leaders must have the self-awareness and emotional intelligence to recognize that people handle conflict differently, based on their personality, upbringing, culture, and more. We must learn to read each other and help each other navigate this difficult terrain.

Lencioni recommends that leaders “mine for conflict,” almost like it’s gold. Why? Some of the real breakthroughs can only be found on the other side of conflict.

How does this work in practice? A leader must go digging for buried disagreements or the things that aren’t being said. A leader must have the courage to bring the group’s attention to sensitive issues, where people feel uncomfortable, and push them to work through the issues despite the awkwardness and difficulty. A leader mustn’t let people avoid the issues or sensitive discussions. A leader must create a holding environment where it’s safe for some sparks to fly.

One leadership practice here is counterintuitive: catch people disagreeing during a meeting and praise them for modeling needed behavior. Remind them that the goal is not to focus on who wins, but on how conflict can help us understand core issues, root causes, and possible solutions.

By doing this, leaders can reframe conflict from a behavioral taboo to a necessary practice in the quest for excellence.

Another leadership practice here is “regulating the temperature.” Most teams generate friction and heat in their work together, especially in pressure-filled situations. Too often, leaders step in and artificially dial down the temperature as people start to feel uncomfortable.

That’s a mistake. The key is to keep the temperature hot enough—but not too hot—so that productive disagreement can continue as people work through the tension and start approaching solutions, instead of sweeping things under the rug.

Another leadership practice: depersonalize conflict. Reframe it away from who’s scoring points and toward a quest for understanding and a commitment to the shared vision.

A final leadership practice: driving to clear agreements and closure at the end of meetings. Too often, teams end meetings with ambiguity. People leave the meeting without a clear understanding of exactly what was decided and who’ll do what by when. Many meetings are poorly run, with tangents and poor time management. Attendees leave the meeting before a crisp accounting of the decisions and next steps is made. Leaders need to build in adequate time for this critical last step.

Important note: the leadership practices above don’t apply just to managers who have a formal position of authority. Distinguishing between leadership and authority, we note that anybody in a team can employ these leadership practices, regardless of their title. In our book, Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, we noted the advanced leadership practice of building a culture of stewardship in which leaders unleash the leadership, initiative, creativity, and commitment of everybody in the organization by giving them an automatic license to lead, as long as they operate by the shared values. Conflict management is a skill we all need.

The bottom line: while most people avoid it, we should embrace conflict as a necessary part of effective teamwork (and relationships generally)—and learn how to manage it well.

Productive conflict saves time.

It builds trust.

It leads to better results.

It’s a prerequisite for high-performing teams and trusting relationships.

Avoid it at your peril.

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Recommended Books on Managing Conflict Effectively:

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training and development venture. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion). Check out Gregg’s manifesto on the most common Leadership Derailers, or his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.”

The Power of Empathy in Leadership

These days, we ask much of our leaders. Organizations and governments are under great pressures to perform, and these days leaders are responsible for crisis management during a pandemic with its attendant economic destruction and social and emotional anxiety.

More and more we are realizing that empathy is a powerful aspect of leading well.

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from their frame of reference (i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another person’s position). Researchers have identified several types of empathy:

  • Cognitive empathy is the capacity to understand someone’s mental state.
  • Emotional empathy is the capacity to respond with an appropriate emotion to another’s mental states, including a concern for others when they are suffering.
  • Somatic empathy is a physical reaction in our nervous system that entails physically feeling someone else’s pain (e.g., getting a sense of physical pain when you see someone else get hurt).

According to the research, when managers exhibit the most empathy toward their team, they are viewed as better performers. What’s more, when we exhibit empathy as leaders, we build trust with others because they see that we are paying attention to them and recognizing their issues and concerns.

When we empathize, we relate to and connect with people, and that contributes toward building a sense of teamwork and camaraderie.

According to Roman Krznaric in Empathy: Why It Matters and How to Get It, empathy “is not just about seeing things from another’s perspective. It’s the cornerstone of smart leadership. The real competitive advantage of the human worker will be their capacity to create relationships….”

Great leaders focus not just on vision and execution but also on building healthy and close relationships with people they work with.

Empathy shows up in several modern leadership frameworks. For example, it is one of the ten characteristics of a servant leader and one of the components of emotional intelligence (and its social awareness aspect).

In our “triple crown leadership” model for how to build excellent, ethical, and enduring organizations, it shows up in our “head and heart” practice, with leaders hiring, developing, and rewarding people not just for “head” skills like knowledge and skills but also for “heart” factors, including empathy. What’s more, we can view leadership as a quest (e.g., to achieve a higher purpose). But as entrepreneur and author Jim Rohn notes, “As a leader, you should always start with where people are before you try to take them where you want them to go.”

Recently, we have seen troubling examples of narcissism in leaders, including an excessive need for admiration as well as a disregard for others’ feelings, interests, or safety.

That is a real shame, because it keeps the focus on the leader as opposed to the larger purpose and the people in the organization and those they serve.

The best leaders leverage empathy to understand their customers much more deeply and thus lead their teams in creating products and services that solve real problems—and in seeing opportunities for innovation that others miss.

Empathy is an essential aspect of effective leadership and a powerful human trait that binds us together in the ups and downs of life and work.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change.

Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion).

To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from Gregg’s books, check out his Free Guide.

The Most Important Questions for Leaders

Leading others well can be a great challenge. It requires courage, judgment, wisdom, emotional intelligence, integrity, and much more. Leadership excellence comes with experience, but it begins with intentionality and commitment.
 
Here are the most important (four) questions to help ground your leadership in a powerful foundation, whether you are a new leader learning the ropes or a seasoned leader looking to upgrade or renew.
 
1. Why are you leading? Is it for prestige? The title? Money? Power? Perquisites? Is it to prove something, or impress others? In truth, several of these may be drivers for you, but the key issue is whether you have found a deeper why. Being a leader does not require being a saint absent normal human influences and motivations, but leading well requires clarity of purpose and a motivation beyond the self. Great leadership has been described as motivating people to accomplish great things together. In our Triple Crown Leadership book, we address the kind of leadership that can build an organization that is excellent, ethical, and enduring—with exceptional, positive, and sustainable impacts.
 
Have you matured and evolved such that you are able to rise beyond your ego and focus on the bigger picture? Followers will recognize selfish motives, especially if they become dominant, and such motives can make your leadership toxic if left unchecked. But followers will respond positively if they see a leader committed to a worthy higher purpose and aspirational vision.
 
2. Who are you serving? As Robert Greenleaf noted, the best leaders serve. With his “servant leadership” framework, he challenged traditional thinking about leadership as a top-down phenomenon. Greenleaf wrote, “The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions.”
 
People sense that call to serve. They respect and admire it, and willingly follow. Greenleaf even developed a conceptual “test” we can use for determining whether someone is a servant leader: “The best test is: do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”
 
At best, leaders serve their followers, and the organization serves all of its stakeholders: customers, employees, vendors and partners, the community, and its owners. The days of any organization serving only shareholders, often at the expense of other stakeholders, are numbered.
 
3. Are you upholding your values? Your values are the things that are most important to you. Think about what you believe and stand for, and your convictions about what is most important in life. While many organizations have statements of their values, many people don’t take the time to discover their own values. There is great power in making your values explicit and sharing them with others—and in demonstrating them through your choices and behaviors. Values matter because they guide your behavior in congruence with your authentic self and deepest convictions. Many people run into trouble when they behave in ways that conflict with their values.
 
Great leaders know their own values and collaboratively elicit a set of shared values to guide the behavior and decisions of people in the organization. They key is not having values. The key is upholding them and infusing them in the organization so they are actualized.
 
“You cannot deliver value unless you anchor the company’s values. Values make an unsinkable ship.” Indra Nooyi, former Chair and CEO, PepsiCo
 
4. What are you doing to develop yourself and others? Learning to lead well is a lifelong endeavor, and the best leaders are incredibly intentional about developing their own leadership through experience, stretch assignments, challenges, crises, active solicitation of feedback, coaching, mentoring, training, courses, reading, peer groups, self-reflection, and more.
 
The best leaders also focus on developing others. According to Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner in The Leadership Challenge, “Leaders develop in others the competence, as well as the confidence, to act and to excel.” They go on to say, “The most lasting test of your leadership effectiveness is the extent to which you bring forth and develop the leadership abilities in others, not just in yourself.”
 
Unfortunately, most organizations do not invest nearly enough in effective training and development (or on vetting people during hiring). According to a Hewitt Associates study of 700 senior leaders, most organizations hold their executives and managers accountable for achieving business results, but only 10% hold executives accountable for developing their direct reports, and only 5% indicate that their managers consistently demonstrate the ability to develop employees. In their book, The Talent MastersRam Charan and Bill Conaty write, “If businesses managed their money as carelessly as they manage their people, most would be bankrupt. The great majority of companies that control their finances don’t have any comparable processes for developing leaders or even pinpointing which ones to develop.”
 
Organizations that are great at learning and development improve systematically over time in ways that allow them to excel and outperform others, leveraging the power of compounding and the engagement and motivation that come from learning, development, and growth.
 
So, four key questions for leaders:
1. Why are you leading?
2. Who are you serving?
3. Are you upholding your values?
4. What are you doing to develop yourself and others?
 
How do you answer these questions, and which questions need better answers?

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion). To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from Gregg’s books, check out his Free Guide.

The Problem of Bad Leaders – and Why People Keep Following Them

With a pandemic and all of its attendant human suffering, with economic devastation and so much loss of livelihood and dignity, with painful but overdue and much-needed conversations about structural and systematic racial injustice and inequity, and with so much division, disdain, and distrust, we need good leadership more than ever. Not because it is a cure-all, but because it is a prerequisite for stemming the crises, healing the wounds, and getting us moving in the right direction. Not just leadership at one level, but leadership at all levels of society and organizations. Not top-down, but leadership all around.

Yet too often we encounter not just mediocre but bad or even toxic leadership, the kind that not only fails to match the moment but that takes us in the wrong direction.

David Gergen, senior advisor to four U.S. presidents (from both parties), and author of Eyewitness to Power, wrote, “Most books about leadership tell us what a person ought to do to become effective and powerful. Few tell us what to avoid. But the latter may be even more valuable because many people on the road to success are tripped up by their mistakes and weaknesses.”

No leader is perfect. We all have faults, flaws, blind spots, and shadow sides. But we have to understand and grapple with the problem of bad leadership if we are to figure out what kind of leadership is needed today and to develop the leaders needed for tomorrow.

Bad leadership comes in various degrees, starting with lacking desirable behaviors, moving to missing essential elements, and falling off a cliff when it comes to toxic leadership. We address each in turn below.

There are many things that can “derail” our leadership. We can avoid difficult tasks. We can be a bottleneck on decisions. We can struggle with effective communication, listening, or delegation. We can get caught up in firefighting—reacting to events without moving toward a worthy vision. We can be too hard or too soft (what we call “steel and velvet” in Triple Crown Leadership book). We can be overly rational and not sufficiently emotional, or vice versa. We can be impulsive, insecure, or intimidating. We can be overly optimistic or pessimistic. We can be perfectionist, people pleasers, or procrastinators. There are many derailers, and most leaders have multiple derailers. Those willing to learn and develop and can turn to coaches, mentors, advisors, feedback, training, books, and more.

Some modern leadership frameworks can inform this discussion. Authentic leadership from Bill George incorporates purpose, values, commitment to relationships, self-discipline, and heart, and these in turn generate passion, connectedness, consistency, and compassion. It is easy to see how some leaders may struggle in some of these areas.

Servant leadership from Robert Greenleaf emphasizes that the leader’s essential role is to serve others—the team, the organization, the community, the nation, the world. At its best, servant leadership involves listening, empathy, persuasion, stewardship, commitment to people’s growth, and building community. Greenleaf wrote that its best test is this: “Do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?” Again, it is easy to see how many leaders might fall short in some or many of these areas.

Transformational leadership (from James MacGregor Burns, Bernard M. Bass, Bruce Avolio, and others) causes significant change in individuals and social systems. In contrast with transactional leadership, which focuses on exchanges of expediency between leaders and followers via contingent rewards, transformational leadership involves emotional influence, vision and inspirational motivation, stimulation of creativity and reflections on values and beliefs, and consideration of the needs of followers. Clearly, this is a high standard, and many leaders fall short of it.

Leadership scholars James Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of the best-selling classic, The Leadership Challenge, have been surveying people around the world for decades on the “Characteristics of Admired Leaders.” More than 100,000 people worldwide have responded, and the findings are powerful and surprisingly consistent across nations: “for over three decades, there are only four qualities that have always received more than 60 percent of the votes… for the majority of people to follow someone willingly, they want a leader who they believe is

  • Honest
  • Competent
  • Inspiring
  • Forward-looking”

Clearly, leaders who lack honesty, competence, inspiration, and the ability to rise out of the present moment and look forward are not ones who will motivate and bring out the best in their followers. Honesty and credibility were far and away at the top of the list of things people want from their leaders:

“In every survey we’ve conducted, honesty is selected more often than any other leadership characteristic. Overall, it emerges as the single most important factor in the leader-constituent relationship…. First and foremost, people want a leader who is honest…. people want to follow leaders who, more than anything, are credible. Credibility is the foundation of leadership. People must be able, above all else, to believe in their leaders. To willingly follow them, people must believe that the leader’s word can be trusted, that they are personally passionate and enthusiastic about the work, and that they have the knowledge and skill to lead.” -James Kouzes and Barry Posner, The Leadership Challenge

What we want from leaders can be greatly influenced by the context. For example, during a crisis we want leaders who show humanity and grace under pressure; seek credible information from a diverse array of experts; form a brilliant crisis response team; communicate reality, urgency, and hope; make themselves present, visible, and available; maintain radical focus; make big decisions fast; empower leaders at all levels; restore psychological stability as well as financial stability; use purpose and values as a guide; create a sense that people are all in it together; build operating rhythm with small wins; maintain a long-term perspective; and anticipate and shape the “new normal.”

Bad leadership gets much worse in a hurry when leaders are deeply flawed with what I call mega-derailers. In my experience, ego and fear are the mega-derailers that are most pernicious, and that underly many of the other derailers. Cynicism, derision, and hate are also candidates for this list.

In her book, Multipliers, researcher and executive advisor Liz Wiseman notes that some leaders are “diminishers” who stifle others for their own benefit and aggrandizement, as opposed to “multipliers” who use their intelligence to amplify the smarts and capabilities of those around them. Diminishers include:

  1. Empire builders who hoard resources and underutilize talent
  2. Tyrants who create anxiety and suppress thinking
  3. Know-it-alls who showcase their own knowledge and tell people what to do
  4. Decision makers who make abrupt decisions that confuse people through the attendant chaos
  5. Micromanagers who take over and control things without trusting others to do their work

Importantly, Wiseman notes that there are also “accidental diminishers” who unintentionally shut down the intelligence and potential of others, for example by making others dependent on them by always rescuing them, overwhelming others with a flurry of ideas, consuming all the energy in the room, driving so hard or fast that others become passive spectators, or being so optimistic that others wonder if they appreciate struggles and risks.

Another version of bad leadership takes the benefits of transformational leadership noted above and twists it into pseudo-transformational leadership, which is characterized by self-serving yet inspirational leadership behaviors, discouraging independent thought in followers, and little caring for them. According to leadership scholars Bernard Bass and Ron Riggio, pseudo-transformational leaders are self-consumed, exploitative, and power-oriented, with warped moral values.

Recently, there has been increasing attention given to the “dark side of leadership,” often focused on narcissism (excessive need for admiration, disregard for others’ feelings, inability to handle criticism, and sense of entitlement), hubris (foolish pride or dangerous overconfidence), and exploitation (taking unfair advantage). To those we can add the scourges of bullying and harassment. And of course there is a long history of authoritarian and autocratic leadership, and unethical and criminal leadership.

Toxic leadership, according to Jean Lipman-Blumen of Claremont Graduate University and author of The Allure of Toxic Leaders, is “a process in which leaders, by dint of their destructive behavior and/or dysfunctional personal characteristics, inflict serious and enduring harm on their followers, their organizations, and non-followers, alike.”

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Clearly, there is a range of bad leadership behaviors, ranging from mild to severe, but the important question remains as to why people continue to follow bad or toxic leaders.

Some scholars have written about a “toxic triangle,” a confluence of leader, follower, and environmental factors that facilitate destructive patterns:

  • Toxic leaders: charisma, narcissism, power, negative life themes and ideology
  • Susceptible followers: unmet needs, low self-evaluation, ambition, similar world view
  • Conducive environments: instability, perceived threats, lack of effective institutions and checks and balances

For years, many have pointed to the allure of charisma (compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others) and charismatic leadership, with people being seduced by leader characteristics such as wealth, power, or confidence. We can also look at the “psychodynamics of leadership,” including the psychological underpinnings of leaders’ behavior. Harvard’s Joseph S. Nye, Jr. wrote in his book, The Powers to Lead, “People persist in looking for heroic leaders.” Abraham Zaleznik, a leading scholar in this field, asks, “Is the leadership mystique merely a holdover from our childhood—from a sense of dependency and a longing for good and heroic parents?” Many people just long for somebody to come along and fix things, abdicating their own agency and responsibility, and they believe it when some leaders make unrealistic promises.

Ethics scholar Kenneth Goodpaster has done important work that I believe may shed light here. He notes that many leaders and followers get caught up in “teleopathy,” an unbalanced pursuit of purpose (e.g., winning in politics or sports, being a market leader in business, launching a space shuttle by X date), which is driven by fixation on set goals, rationalization of questionable behavior and decisions (e.g., everybody is doing it), and detachment from our personal values as we pursue those aims. I wonder if people are willing to stick with bad or unethical leaders because they are so caught up in winning and will do whatever it takes to prevail.

Our brains (and evolutionary biology) may also be part of the story. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion:

“People bind themselves into political teams that share moral narratives. Once they accept a particular narrative, they become blind to alternative moral worlds…. If you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense.”

Our brains have evolved to seek and defend tribes, and to be exceptionally good at rationalizing the behaviors and decisions of our tribe (and its leader), a phenomenon that is often unconscious (so exceptionally difficult to defend against).

As we can see, there are many reasons why good people continue to follow bad leaders, and these neurological, psychological, and social phenomena are complex and powerful (and subject to exploitation by savvy operators and marketers).

In the end, we want leaders who add and multiply, not subtract and divide. We want leaders who get great results, with integrity, and sustainably. We want leaders who create more followers and serve the larger good rather than themselves. We want leaders we admire, who make us better, and who call on our better angels. We need better leaders, and we need them now. But most of all, we need to be our own best advocates and changemakers.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion). To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from Gregg’s books, check out his Free Guide.

CHRO – Become Your Organization’s Chief Culture Officer

Today’s Human Resources (HR) leader has a wonderful opportunity to make an important strategic contribution:

Become your organization’s Chief Culture Officer.

If your CEO already acts as the Chief Culture Officer, great. Then you can be his or her Chief Culture Execution Officer. But most CHROs aren’t that fortunate, and you may need some ammunition to persuade the CEO that focusing on building culture can be a source of competitive advantage:

  • Researchers have found a “strong relationship between constructive organizational cultures and financial performance.” (Source: Eric Sanders and Robert Cooke, “Financial Returns from Organizational Culture Improvement: Translating ‘Soft’ Changes into ‘Hard’ Dollars,” Human Synergistics White Paper, 2011.)
  • According to a Booz & Company report, “Culture matters, enormously. Studies have shown again and again that there may be no more critical source of business success or failure than a company’s culture–it trumps strategy and leadership (emphasis added).” (Source: Barry Jaruzelski, John Loehr, and Richard Holman, “The Global Innovation 1000: Why Culture Is Key,” Strategy + Business, Winter 2011.)
  • Author James Heskett estimates that an “effective culture can account for 20 to 30 percent of the difference in performance versus ‘culturally unremarkable’ competitors.” (Source: Deidre Campbell, “What Great Companies Know About Culture,” Harvard Business Review Blogs, December 14, 2011.)

“I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game, it is the game. In the end, an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value.” -Lou Gerstner, former IBM CEO

We think of organizational culture as “how we do things here”: how people behave. Culture forms over time and drives what happens when the bosses are not present. It sets the tone for the organization, the norms for what is acceptable behavior. Culture is a powerful force in determining how an organization operates and whether it succeeds.

Organizations with a toxic culture pay a heavy price in lost revenue, staff attrition, low productivity, damaged reputation, lawsuits, and more. Ego, greed, deceit, conflict, gamesmanship, mistrust, turf wars, backstabbing, and exploitation spawn toxic cultures.

Organizations with a nondescript, non-defined, haphazard culture (perhaps this sounds familiar?) do nothing to help their organizations compete and thrive.

By contrast, organizations with a high-performance culture of character—think of Southwest Airlines, Zappos, Patagonia, DreamWorks, Atlassian, Google, Warby Parker, REI, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Salesforce—set in motion a self-reinforcing, positive, and virtuous cycle with their stakeholders. Employees identify more with the enterprise and bring more of their talents, creativity, and commitment to their work. This healthy culture positively affects profitability, growth, productivity, staff retention, reputation, relationships with customers and suppliers, and more.

A healthy culture by no means guarantees success, but it provides the energy boost and commitment to build an exceptional organization. In a high-performance culture of character, everybody expects excellent, ethical, and enduring performance and impact—what we call “triple crown leadership.”

Culture is the legacy of leadership. A high-performance culture of character is the legacy of triple crown leadership.

So, what can Chief Human Resources Officers (CHROs) do to help their organizations excel? Here are some suggestions.

1. Become the Chief Culture Officer. Live and breathe culture-building, making it your top priority.

2. Persuade the CEO. Persuade your CEO that culture is critical. Volunteer to lead an effort to make your culture a competitive advantage. You probably don’t need more (or much more) money, time, or staff. You mostly need buy-in (and perhaps cover). Promise periodic updates on progress.

3. Align with Organizational Goals and Strategy. Make sure you have a seat at the goal- and strategy-setting meetings. Align your culture-building efforts to the goals and strategy. If you can’t gain that access immediately, ask another officer for a briefing.

4. Get a Baseline. Conduct a baseline assessment to determine what your current culture is. Your baseline can be as simple as gathering input on these questions: How do we do things here? What are the accepted norms of behavior? On a one-to-five scale, how does this culture contribute to or detract from the achievement of our goals and strategy? Use team meetings, employee interviews, online surveys, and/or town hall meetings to gather data. After a few weeks, you’ll have a good picture of the current culture.

5. Brainstorm and Synthesize the Ideal. Conduct a few sessions with some influential leaders at various levels in the organization. Explore questions like: What is our desired culture? How would we be operating if we were really the best-of-the-best in our field? From this input, you can synthesize a succinct and aspirational statement of your organization’s desired culture in a page or less.

6. Determine How to Fill the Gap. Now it’s time for some brainstorming and innovative thinking from you and your colleagues: “How do we fill the gap between the current culture and our desired culture? What must we do differently?” Be practical and specific. In the process, recruit committed volunteers and allies to begin the cultural transformation. Here are ideas for how to fill the gap:

  • Make Culture a Priority. Keep the initiative visible. Get culture on daily agendas and priority lists across departments.
  • Redefine Shared Purpose. Why does your organization exist? It’s likely not because of that vapid mission statement laced with jargon on your website and ignored in daily operations. See our guide for moving away from mission to inspirational purpose.
  • Redefine Shared Values. Shared values are those things that are most important to you. Think about what you believe and stand for, and the norms for how people should behave. See our guide to setting organizational and team values.
  • Hire and Promote for Cultural Fit. When you interview new talent, or are considering someone for a promotion, make his or her fit with your desired culture an explicit requirement. Write explicit culture requirements into job descriptions. Hire and promote slowly: in other words, only when you are confident of good cultural fit.
  • Unleash Cultural Stewards. Though people all work in their functional areas (HR, IT, Sales, etc.), they should all have another job: steward of the culture. That means they have an irrevocable license to speak up, protecting and defending the desired culture and shared values—even speaking truth to power as a “voice of one.” These culture stewards can invoke peer pressure to change behavior.
  • Inculcate Culture. Culture needs to be baked into the DNA of every team. Start with the groups or departments most likely to embrace the new culture ideas and methodically work your way toward those departments that are likely to resist. Culture change takes time, thoughtfulness, and discipline.
  • Reward. Celebrate and reward people who are the cultural stewards though public recognition, awards, bonuses, raises, and promotions, as they do at Zappos and other companies. Be creative and resourceful, and have fun with this.

7. Culture Change Plan. Once you have identified your culture gap fillers, draft a Culture Change Plan. It doesn’t have to be long. Share it with all your colleagues as the road map for culture change.

8. Model It. As Chief Culture Officer, be the exemplar of the desired culture. Everyone will be watching what you do more than what you say. If (when) you slip up, admit it, apologize, and ask for help to improve.

9. Be Resolute. Use your leadership authority and position to insist that everyone operate by the cultural norms you set together. No exceptions, even for top performers. They too must operate by the shared cultural norms or leave. Otherwise, your efforts will be undermined. Our experience is that when toxic superstars depart for values violations, the aggregate performance level of the remaining group actually improves.

10. Appoint Culture Champions. Empower a small group of trusted colleagues across departments to be proactive about culture recommendations and to take independent action. Meet with them often and assess progress. Keep their enthusiasm levels high. You can’t do it all, and you need their leadership.

11. Conduct Periodic Assessments. Monitor the culture through periodic assessments, formal or informal. Culture change is not a one-shot fix. It is a never-ending process that needs time, attention, and leadership.

12.Brief the Leadership Team. Brief the leadership team, including the CEO and board members, quarterly (or even monthly) on what is happening with culture to achieve the corporate goals and strategy. Keep the initiative visible. Downplay your own role, and celebrate what leaders throughout the organization are doing to build the culture.

By creating a high-performance culture, you will engage people, build trust, infuse meaning into people’s work, bring more joy into your workplace, and position the organization for greatness.

Core Concept: Building, a high-performance culture of character is an unappreciated and underused way of helping organizations thrive. The CHRO should lead that effort.

Bob and Gregg Vanourek, father and son, are co-authors of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, a winner of the International Book Awards. Twitter: @TripleCrownLead, @GVanourek.

Leading from Below

In our work with leaders across sectors and industries, we often get asked about how people can “lead from below”: how they can exert influence on the organization and its culture even when they do not have much (or any) formal authority, or when they work in middle management, or when they work for a bad or mediocre manager, or for a company with a toxic culture.

The short answer: you can do much more than you think.

Ronald Heifetz from Harvard has noted that, since we tend to conflate leadership and authority, even the idea of leading without authority can be perplexing. Authority is the right to make decisions, give orders, and enforce obedience. There are many leaders who operate that way, but leadership is fundamentally different.

Much of the important leadership we’ve seen in organizations comes not just from people with authority but also from people throughout the organization, regardless of their title. We have seen brilliant leadership in action from people with little authority, from new people, from interns.

One of the advanced leadership practices we advocate in Triple Crown Leadership book, based on our interviews with 61 organizations in 11 countries, is unleashing the latent leadership, creativity, and agency of people throughout the organization—viewing them as “stewards” of the organization’s shared purpose, values, and vision and its quest to be excellent, ethical, and enduring. That means developing and expecting leadership not just from above but also from below. That means that everyone has essentially two job descriptions: first, their normal duties, and second, defending the organization’s results imperative, ethics imperative, and sustainability imperative.

In addressing how to lead from below, we first note that there are real dangers associated with it. When handled poorly, it can cause real problems. You can become a lightning rod. You can be attacked. You can be the messenger who gets shot. You can become the scapegoat. You can lose your job.

Some managers view leading from below by those they supervise as a challenge or insult. If they are insecure or arrogant, they may attack or punish you. Other times, your colleagues will view it as an attack on the group, and they may feel obligated to isolate you out of loyalty to the group. When leading without authority, you should expect some resistance, and you need to play it smart.

Note also that there are great rewards possible from leading from below, both for you and the organization. Here are some tips based on our own experiences and what we have seen in the leadership literature.

1. Embrace your own potential and abilities. Too often, followers give too much deference to their leaders and relinquish their own power and responsibility. With a more enlightened viewpoint, you may find that you have more potential and influence than you think arising from your knowledge, skills, relationships, work ethic, and access to information or people.

2. Reframe your mindset about your role (and your manager). Too often, followers give too much deference to their leaders or are too quick to throw up their hands and abdicate responsibility for what is happening in the organization, pointing fingers of blame at their colleagues who happen to be in positions of authority. The best followers do all they can to help the organization achieve its purpose, vision, and goals while operating within the bounds of values and ethics.

This means shaking things up, taking risks, and helping leaders get better (e.g., by informing them of problems they may not be aware of, raising tough issues, asking provocative questions, letting their manager know what they need to succeed, and developing relationships of trust with all they work with). We should also check our beliefs about our leaders: do we hold them to unrealistic expectations of perfection or judge them too harshly even when we may not be aware of all the challenges they face, with the pressures and demands of leadership? Have we walked a mile in their shoes?

3. Have a bias for action. Too many people wait to be anointed before acting, or for conditions to be “just right” (which almost never happens). In Leadership without Easy Answers, Ron Heifetz writes, “many people wait until they gain authority, formal or informal, to begin leading. They see authority as a prerequisite. Yet those who do lead usually feel that they are taking action beyond whatever authority they have.”

4. Look for ways to increase your leverage by building informal authority. People generally respond positively to leadership regardless of whether it comes from positions of authority or not. Build up your bank account of informal authority by first and foremost establishing credibility through character and competence, as well as demonstrating trustworthiness, respect, courage, clarity, commitment, and effective communication and listening (even to people with whom you disagree).

5. Clearly establish your loyalty to the organization’s purpose, values, and vision so people know this is not a power play or selfish ambition. It must be clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that you have your colleagues’ and the organization’s best interests at heart. Be thoughtful about how you communicate to your colleagues, taking nothing for granted.

6. Identify allies, relevant stakeholders, and potential adversaries. Map out all the people, teams, and divisions involved, and see things from their perspective. Recruit as many allies as you can, especially those with deep credibility, influence, and insight into the organization—thinking also about who is trustworthy. Be open to new ideas, recognizing that you may be missing something that you cannot see clearly from your perch, and that other people come at it from a different perspective.

7. Determine your best approach, specifically whether you will try to get results by changing the mind or behavior of your manager or management team, or whether you will instead mobilize colleagues around you as change agents (or some combination). Too often, followers assume that they have to do the former, but in many cases the latter approach can be more effective over time.

8. Recognize that by lacking authority you have some advantages. The cons of lacking authority are clear and obvious, such as lacking power over people and resources. The pros are less obvious but often important, including more latitude to do things differently, freedom from political limitations, less need to account for an overwhelming array of stakeholders often with conflicting interests, more access to information on the front lines, and an ability to advocate for focused issues as opposed to the full array of considerations.

9. Speak up and raise concerns when needed. This is one of the most important aspects of leading from below, in part because it is so rare. According to the Corporate Executive Board (now part of Gartner), “Nearly half of all executive teams fail to receive negative news that is material to firm performance in a timely manner because employees are afraid of being tainted by the bad news, and “only 19% of executive teams are always promptly informed of bad news that is material to firm performance.” Leadership expert Warren Bennis wrote, “If I had to reduce the responsibilities of a good follower to a single rule, it would be to speak truth to power.”

How to speak up when needed? First, get all the facts and avoid jumping to conclusions. Our brains make extensive use of mental shortcuts and these can often lead to mistaken assumptions or biases. If the issue is in fact real, address it directly with the person in question, but ask and learn first (seeking to understand). No guns blazing with accusations. Be open to their input and try to see things from their perspective.

If not satisfied or resolved after dealing directly with the person involved, then go up the chain of command to object or blow the whistle. Meanwhile, consider seeking allies (and legal or human resources help, if needed).

10. Be prepared to walk away, if need be. Before assuming too much risk, think through your professional options (i.e., where would you work if you left this organization) and your personal and family finances. Have you been living lean and diligently building up savings and investments so that you are not living paycheck to paycheck and beholden to an organization that may no longer fit with your values or goals?

The best way to develop one’s own leadership skills is to practice leadership, even if one lacks the formal authority to lead. Leading from below is never easy and not without risk, but it is a powerful way to learn while also providing a great service to your colleagues and organization.

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Post-Script: Research on Leading from Below and Followership
There are many research findings that relate to the question of “leading from below,” and many of them arise from the study of “followership.” For example, Kelley (1992) created a widely known typology of followership:

  • Passive followers: look to the leader for direction and motivation
  • Conformist followers: are always on the leader’s side but still looking to the leader for direction and guidance
  • Alienated followers: think for themselves and exhibit a lot of negative energy
  • Pragmatics: fence-sitters who support the status quote but do not get on board until others do
  • Exemplary followers: are active and positive and offer independent constructive criticism

Kelley notes that effective followers are good at: leading themselves and thinking for themselves, exercising control and independence, and working without supervision; showing strong commitment to organizational goals as well as their personal goals; building their competence and mastering job skills; being credible, ethical, and courageous.

Chaleff (2009) encouraged followers to take a proactive role and work with leaders to achieve common outcomes. He noted that followers need the courage to: assume responsibility for the common purpose, support the leader and the organization, constructively challenge the leader if the common purpose or integrity of the group is being threatened, champion the need for change when necessary, and take a moral stand that is different from the leader’s to prevent ethical abuses. His follower typology:

  • Resource (low support, low challenge): does just enough to get by
  • Implementer (high support, low challenge): supports and gets the work done but fails to challenge the leader’s goals and values
  • Individualist (low support, high challenge): speaks up and lets the leader know where he/she stands (often marginalized by others)
  • Partner (high support, high challenge): takes individual responsibility and supports the leader but always willing to challenge the leader when necessary

In another typology from Kellerman (2008), followers can be: isolates (completely unengaged), bystanders (observers who do not participate), participants (partially engaged and willing to take a stand on some issues), activists (determined to act on their own belief, often as change agents), or diehards (engaged to the extreme, totally dedicated to their cause, whether supporting or opposing the leader).

Too often, the research lionizes the leader (what Meindl called a “romance of leadership”), while neglecting the contributions of followers. Recent research highlights the positive aspects of being a follower, including:

  • Getting the job done
  • Working in the best interest of the mission
  • Learning from leaders
  • Supporting leaders
  • Challenging leaders

In The Allure of Toxic LeadersJean Lipman-Blumen addresses the question of why people follow bad or toxic leaders (who are unethical or use people or their position for their own ends). She points to a number of human needs, desires, feelings, and fears, including: need for reassuring authority figures (especially in times of crisis), need for security and certainty, need to feel chosen or special, need to be part of a community, fear of isolation, and feelings of powerlessness to challenge bad leaders.

In Leadership: Theory and PracticePeter Northouse writes about the cost of followers who fail to stand up to toxic leaders: “when followers are passive or submissive, their inaction can contribute to unfettered leadership and unintentionally support toxic leaders…. Followers can create contexts that are unhealthy and make it possible for leaders who are not interested in the common good to thrive.”

In The Leadership Experience (2005), Richard Daft notes several demands of effective followers, including:

  • The will to assume responsibility for personal behavior and its impact on the organization
  • The will to serve the needs of the organization and the people in it
  • The will to challenge when necessary, including taking courageous stands for principles
  • The will to participate in transformation, including confronting challenges and work toward reshaping the organization
  • The will to leave when the manager or organization are toxic or unethical or when it is time to move on to another phase of life

In Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, Albert Hirschman noted that employees have several options when they are dissatisfied with their manager or organization:

  1. Neglect: allow conditions to worsen
  2. Loyalty: passively wait for conditions to improve
  3. Voice: active and constructive attempts to improve conditions
  4. Exit: leave the organization

Related Books and Articles:

  • Ira Chaleff, The Courageous Follower: Standing Up to and for Our Leaders, third edition (Berrett-Koehler, 2009).
  • Richard Daft, The Leadership Experience (Thomson Southwestern, 2005).
  • Amy E. Gallo, “How to Speak Up about Ethical Issues at Work,” Harvard Business Blogs, June 2015.
  • Ronald Heifetz, Leadership without Easy Answers (Harvard University Press, 1994)
  • Albert Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States (Harvard University Press, 1970).
  • Barbara Kellerman, “What Every Leader Needs to Know about Followers,” Harvard Business Review, December 2007.
  • Robert Kelley, The Power of Followership (Consultants to Executives and Organizations, 1992).
  • Jean Lipman-Blumen, The Allure of Toxic Leaders (Oxford University Press, 2006).
  • Peter Northouse, Leadership: Theory and Practice, eighth edition (SAGE Publications, 2019).
  • Ronald Riggio, Ira Chaleff, and Jean Lipman-Blumen, The Art of Followership (Jossey-Bass, 2008).

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion). To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from Gregg’s books, check out his Free Guide.

Personal Resilience and Self-Care in Hard Times

In times of great upheaval and uncertainty, we struggle to find ways to thrive despite the challenges. Much of this comes down to self-talk, self-regulation, and self-leadership—navigating our reactions to external events and ensuring that our inner voice does not undermine us amidst the difficulties.

The toll of the pandemic is massive, from disease, suffering, death, and mourning to unemployment, financial stress, disruptions, and restrictions. The effects on our quality of life and inner state can be more profound than we realize. Stress, pressure, and fear—for ourselves and our loved ones—exact their price in insidious ways.

But we humans are strong and adaptable, with amazing capabilities—both individually and collectively. Two of our most precious assets in times like these are personal resilience and self-care.

Resilience. What is resilience? Tony Schwartz, author and founder of The Energy Project, defines resilience as the “capacity to function effectively under intense stress and to recover.” As humans, we can develop different types of resilience, e.g., emotional, mental, physical. Schwartz notes three pillars of resilience:

  1. Self-awareness: naming what you are feeling is a good first step, and sharing it can help build trust
  2. Self-regulation: calming your body in the face of anger, fear, and anxiety (note: slow and deep breathing can help greatly with this)
  3. Self-care: engaging in regular practices to take care of yourself and build up your reserves so they do not get depleted under pressure

How do we build resilience? Here is a punch list:

Regular Self-Care Practices. We all have different preferences, but most of us are not doing enough on this front. Examples include:

  • Breaks. As humans, we can only go so long before getting depleted. Many professionals and leaders today are quite ambitious, and also attached via ego to success and prestige, causing them to get lost in overwork or burnout. Simple practices of regular breaks (e.g., Pomodoro technique) can be quite helpful and restorative.
  • Exercise. We need to move our bodies, and when we do so we can build strength, endurance, and energy. It causes positive reactions in our bodies that affect our mood, and it helps us sleep well.
  • Gratitude. According to researchers, being grateful for what we have can have powerful effects on our quality of life, including improved well-being, life satisfaction, sense of connectedness, and physical health. Activities such as gratitude journaling each night or writing gratitude letters to those who have helped us can have surprisingly strong and lasting effects.
  • Hobbies. Find something you enjoy and build it into your daily or weekly routine. It could be gardening, puzzles, podcasts, or whatever. Reading is one of my personal favorites, and I have often noticed that times in my life when I feel down have been times when I have neglected reading. Reading can take us into new worlds of imagination and new vistas of learning.
  • Meditation and Mindfulness. Mindfulness has been defined as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally” (Jon Kabat-Zinn). Researchers have found many benefits from mindfulness practices, including improvements in mental and physical health as well as performance.
  • Nature. As physical beings in a dynamic ecosystem, we need to be outside. Fresh air and sunlight are essential. If our days are loaded with Zoom sessions and emails, we need to be sure we are getting outside enough through walks, hikes, runs, bikes, or trips to the park.
  • Nutrition. We’ve all heard that “you are what you eat,” but how many of us take it seriously? Our bodies need good fuel if they are to remain resilient and energized for all that we want to do in life. For great tips on food, check out Dr. Michael Greger’s Nutrition Facts web site and books, starting with How Not to Diet.
  • Reframing. According to researchers, we humans have a negativity bias—over-focusing on negatives and underappreciating positives. It is important to reframe things from setbacks or defeats to challenges or opportunities (e.g., for learning and growth).
  • Sanctuary. Places or practices of peace, allowing us to transcend our ego and connect with something larger than ourselves (e.g., prayer). In a world driven by ego, accumulation, and stress, how powerful is it to step away from our worldly cares and tune into a higher power, recognizing that there is something so much greater than ourselves with our flaws and our brokenness.  

“In life itself, there is a time to seek inner peace, a time to rid oneself of tension and anxiety. The moment comes when the striving must let up, when wisdom says, ‘Be quiet.’ You’ll be surprised how the world keeps on revolving without your pushing it. And you’ll be surprised how much stronger you are the next time you decide to push.” -John W. Gardner

  • Savoring. Given the challenge of the negativity bias noted above, it is essential for us to savor the positives. Savoring means fully feeling and enjoying positive experiences, and thereby extending them.
  • Sleep. Many people today have poor sleep habits. We tend to take sleep for granted, but it turns out to be one of the most essential practices for physical and mental health. Poor sleep has been found to have tremendous deleterious effects on a wide range of factors (e.g., addictive behaviors, anxiety, appetite, attention, concentration, creativity, decision-making, depression, ethical behavior, impulsiveness, irritability, memory, motivation, relationships). A great resource for those struggling with poor sleep is the book, Sleep Smarter, by Shawn Stevenson, with a terrific punch list of simple practices to improve sleep.
  • Writing / Journaling. Research has shown that writing about stressful experiences can help people create meaning from them. I have found that writing can be a creative outlet for emotional catharsis. The same can be true for talking through feelings with others.
  • Yoga. Yoga has been a powerful grounding practice for people for thousands of years. The practice can increase flexibility, strengthen muscles, center thoughts, and relax and calm the mind. At a deeper level, it can unite mind, body, and spirit.

In addition to the above self-care practices, there are other broader mindsets which are important to developing and maintaining personal resilience in good times and bad:

Full Responsibility. This is one of the most powerful principles of human development. Life may not be fair. We may be enduring great hardship, as so many are today. But in the end, we must take full responsibility not only for the choices we make but also for the conditions of our lives. No one is coming to save us. We are responsible for our lives and must continue doing the best we can.

Authentic Integrity. In our book, LIFE EntrepreneursChristopher Gergen and I noted “authentic integrity”—integration of all aspects of our lives in a way that coheres with our true nature—is an essential aspect of intentional life design. This can be thought of as a strong personal foundation. To build it, we can clarify the following and build them into the fabric of our lives:

  • Personal purpose (i.e., what provides us with a sense of meaning or significance)
  • Personal values (what we value most in life)

Healthy Support Systems. When we take time and care to develop relationships based on trust, diversity, reciprocity, commitment, openness, and vulnerability, we can build “healthy support systems” that act like roots that ground us in life. (Source: LIFE Entrepreneurs)

“Connection is why we’re here…. Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen…. True belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world.”Brené Brown

Good Life Buckets. In his excellent book, How to Live a Good LifeJonathan Fields notes that, while we all may have our own unique take on what a good life is for us, for most people a good life includes three “buckets”:

  1. Vitality bucket: energy, nutrition, sleep, exercise, movement, strength, mindfulness, emotional calm, resilience, etc.
  2. Connection bucket: relationships with partner, family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors (e.g., ones based on love, openness, trust, intimacy, commitment, belonging, fun, etc.)
  3. Contribution bucket: service and impact on family, friends, colleagues, community, nation, world, and/or causes or places

I love the good life buckets in part because we can do a quick “bucket test” to determine which buckets may be low and in need of filling.

Hope and Faith. Faith can be defined as complete trust or confidence in someone or something. Regardless of your beliefs, faith can be an essential aspect of remaining resilient during hard times. Do we spiral down into resignation and assume the worst, or do we maintain a powerful and abiding hope and faith that, despite hard times, things can get better if we stay the course and give our very best?

Strength through Suffering. Since suffering is part of life, we need to learn how to deal with it in such a way that it does not break us. Sometimes suffering can help us break out of mindless routines, drifting, or complacency—or taking important things for granted. The pain somehow invites growth.

“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning…. When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Viktor FranklMan’s Search for Meaning

According to Scott Barry Kaufman, adversity can lead to growth in several areas:

  • Greater appreciation of life
  • Greater appreciation and strengthening of close relationships
  • Increased compassion and altruism
  • The identification of new possibilities or a purpose in life
  • Greater awareness and utilization of personal strengths
  • Enhanced spiritual development
  • Creative growth

We do not wish for adversity and suffering, but when it arrives, as it will, we must figure out how to respond. Sometimes it is there that we find humanity at its best. In fighting for ourselves, we build our capacity to fight for others, and to endure this together.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion). To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from Gregg’s books, check out his Free Guide.

The Perils of ‘Climbing Mode’ in Our Career

In our culture today, it is easy to assume that the proper frame for going about our working life is to pursue “climbing mode” as early and aggressively as possible. When I say “climbing mode,” I mean striving to move up the ladder of success, focusing on achievement and advancement. For many, this notion is so ensconced in our culture that it is invisible, unconscious, and wholly taken for granted.

But is it right? Is it helpful or harmful when it comes to living a good life and crafting good work? The assumption of course is that it is right and helpful. That by focusing on “climbing mode” one will build a financial foundation that will lead to success, freedom, and happiness.

No doubt there can be great value in climbing mode. When we focus on climbing this “ladder,” there are many benefits that can accrue: making more money (which can reduce financial stress, then lead to financial independence and freedom, and perhaps even wealth creation, which can lead to enjoyment, generosity, and more); obtaining status; obtaining new opportunities; learning many things along the way as we encounter obstacles and solve problems; growing and developing as professionals, and perhaps as people; feeling a sense of satisfaction for overcoming challenges and achieving goals; and much more.

Yes, I am a fan of climbing mode in part for all the benefits it can bring but also for the remarkable “flow” states one can achieve while applying oneself toward a difficult task.

But for all the benefits of “climbing mode,” there are also down-sides. The problem is that they can be not only severe but also overlooked, a double danger that can compound over time. I see a few major drawbacks.

First, burnout. This has been called an epidemic in modern times among working professionals in many cultures. Many of us have experienced it, and in my work with emerging leaders and entrepreneurs and young changemakers, I see it over and over again even among young people.

Second, excess self-reliance. If we are busy climbing our ladder, it is safe to assume that most of our peers are also buy climbing their own ladders. Fair enough, but this can pull us away from the meaningful connections that are an essential part of a good life (and enjoyable work).

Third, self-aggrandizement. The whole point of climbing mode, for many, is simple: to get to the top. So that I can be on top. So that I can get what I want. So that I can have wealth, or status, or things. It’s all about me and what I can get. In other words, it can become an ego trip of epic proportions. And, oddly enough, this focus on me and what I want to get so that I can be happy, can make me, well, miserable.

There are many reasons for that, including our need for meaningful relationships, the psychological phenomenon of “hedonic adaptation” (our tendency to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes.), and our longing for purpose and contribution in life.

We have a family friend who spent decades of her life in “climbing mode” (to great effect, by the way, with a nice family, a nice home in the mountains, and a stellar career with an impressive resume), only to feel, after all that time:

“I lost a lot of time and wasted a lot of energy by running after achievements to validate myself. It was all about how many things I could have on my resume… trying to live up to others’ expectations of me. It was like living on junk food.”

And then the kicker: “It took me sixty years to trust myself.”

Yes, one of the costs of climbing mode is that we can lose ourselves in the process, no longer trusting our inner voice about who we are and what we long for, and instead adopting someone else’s view of the good life.

“Some time when the river is ice ask me mistakes I have made…. Ask me whether what I have done is my life.”
-William Stafford

One of the problems here is that the pressures we feel when we are young can steer us in a direction that does not serve us well when we get older. And that it feels harder and harder to make changes in the meantime due to the systems that we work in and the “switching costs” that keep us in place.

The solution, though, is not to abandon climbing mode altogether. Again, great value can be found there.

The solution, I think, is to embrace something else: “discover mode,” which is learning about who we are and what we can do (e.g., values, strengths, passions, aspirations). It turns out the sages of old were right: one of the most important things we can do is to know ourselves. This ancient wisdom from East and West is something that feels like it is becoming lost in the modern world.

But let’s be clear: discover mode is not a replacement for climbing mode.

No, instead I think it is something that should come first. We should begin by doing the inner work of discovery, giving us direction for our climb.

And then we can throw ourselves into climbing mode.

But it does not end there. Seasons of life will come and go, and we will change, as will the people around us and our circumstances. So we will need to go back into discover mode again, and then climbing mode again. And so on. It becomes an iterative process of action and reflection, of “warrior and sage.”

Yes, there is a time and a place for climbing mode. But which ladder will you climb, and how will you decide? If you begin instead with discover mode, and then remember to flex between these modes, I think it will serve you well.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion). To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from Gregg’s books, check out his Free Guide.

Ten Keys to Self-Leadership

Man reflecting in front of water

We face a barrage of challenges these days: rapid change, a barrage of demands on our attention, tension between work and home, and more.

There is one meta-skill that shapes how we respond to all these challenges: self-leadership. Without it, we cannot sustain ourselves for long.

Leading self may be obvious, but it is far from easy. We neglect it at our peril.

The task of leading self is the task of a lifetime. Here are ten keys to self-leadership:

1. Healthy Habits. When we are leading self well, we develop an energizing rhythm of self-care. It includes the “fundamentals” that many of us take for granted: good nutrition, vigorous exercise, consistently good sleep, breaks during the day, and regular check-ins to take stock of the big picture. Too often we protest that we don’t have time for such things. That is shortsighted. It is when times are tough that we need these habits the most. Without them, we unravel.

2. Inner Life. Today, we are so consumed with daily obligations and distractions that we can lose ourselves in them. Our inner voice is drowned out by noise and shuffle. John W. Garden once wrote, “By midlife, most of us are accomplished fugitives from ourselves.” We numb ourselves with compulsive smartphone use and binge-watching. In the process, we are rewiring our brains and sabotaging our ability to engage in deep reflection and work. Knowing ourselves means discovering our:

  • Purpose: our reason for being (or what infuses our life with meaning and significance)—including a sense of why we do what we do, and why we want to lead
  • Values: what we value most in life (and the behaviors that manifest those things)
  • Strengths: what we are good at
  • Passions: what we get lost in, or what fills us with energy

Often, it takes time to discover these foundational elements. They become clearer over time if we “listen to our life,” as Parker Palmer encourages. We must build these essentials into our life and work. It helps to share them with loved ones about for input, support, connection, and follow-through.

“All you have to do is to pay attention; lessons always arrive when you are ready, and if you can read the signs, you will learn everything you need to know in order to take the next step.” -Paulo Coelho

3. Authentic Integrity. When we act with integrity, we are not only honest, truthful, and trustworthy; we are also whole. In today’s world, it is easy to live what Parker Palmer calls a “divided life,” with a chasm between how we live and who we really are.

“One man cannot do right in one department of life whilst he is occupied in doing wrong in another department. Life is one indivisible whole.” -Mahatma Gandhi

Instead of dividing ourselves, we must integrate all aspects of our self into one coherent whole. In doing so, we must be who we really are, not a projection of something crafted to please or impress others.  In our book, LIFE Entrepreneurs, Christopher Gergen and I called this “authentic integrity”: integration of all aspects of our lives in a way that coheres with our true nature. When we live this way, we develop what Palmer calls a “hidden wholeness.” 

“Wholeness does not mean perfection; it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.” -Parker Palmer

4. Brutal Honesty. Our brains are wondrous creations, with incredible capacity for sensing, thinking, remembering, learning, calculating, pattern-spotting, imagining, creating, associating, dreaming, and regenerating cells, all while subconsciously regulating our internal bodily functions and sleep.

But our brains are prone to subconscious shortcuts and biases and we are exceptionally good at rationalizing our behavior, whether good or bad. In short, we are masterful at deceiving ourselves and explaining hard truths away.

Are we needy for recognition or approval? Desperate to impress? Losing ourselves in work? Hiding our brokenness? None of us is perfect, but without brutal honesty, we will not be able to break out of unproductive patterns that cause pain for us and others.

“If you want to be successful, you must respect one rule: never lie to yourself.” -Paulo Coelho

5. Inspiration. There is much to be concerned about in the world today. Just look at the headlines. Sometimes we should switch off the frenzied feeds of doom and gloom and turn our gaze elsewhere: What fills us with life? What makes us crackle with energy? What lifts us up? Inspiration can come from different sources: Love. Dreams. Connection. Adventure. Opportunity. Wonder. The coming of spring. The hope of healing. The sense of having helped.

What inspires you? Have you lost touch with it?

6. Courage. We tend to put courage on a pedestal. We think of people suddenly reinventing their lives or leaping into the line of fire. We think of fearlessness. In truth, courage does not come without fear. We show courage when we act even though we are afraid.

“Feel the fear and do it anyway.” -Susan Jeffers

Courage is a prerequisite for everything that is necessary and valuable in life. What use is a good idea not launched into the world? A conviction not defended? A precious relationship not fiercely guarded? A talent that stays backstage? A manuscript that never ships?

It is not enough to have convictions: we must act on them, even when–especially when—they are hard. Courage is not always about acts of heroism. It is much more often the day-to-day hard work of showing up, getting started, putting ourselves out there, doing our best, and persisting. It requires mucking through the swamp of uncertainty.

7. Wholeheartedness. Too often, we live and lead just from our head. We think, reason, assess. Pros and cons. Cost/benefit. We avoid the mysterious territory of the heart. Brené Brown reminds us that we fall into the trap of trying to impress others, with fear and shame driving that fool’s errand.

The alternative, she says, is vulnerability, and embracing what she calls the “gifts of imperfection,” which can lead to connection, joy, and wholeheartedness.

“Connection is why we’re here…. Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen…. True belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world.” -Brené Brown

8. Significance. Jeff Sapadafora of the HalfTime Institute talks about achieving a level of success in his life with a family, prestige, and a big home in the mountains—and yet feeling surprisingly unsettled. Over time—with an increasing disconnect between his life and his values, driven by his focus on ego and accumulation—that feeling grew into what he calls “smoldering discontent.”

In his book, HalfTime, Bob Buford wrote about the struggle that can occupy much of our lives for those fortunate enough not to be consumed with survival matters like disease, hunger, and poverty. If we are fortunate, perhaps we can transform that struggle into success. Too many people stop there, as if wealth and status were the point of life. Buford points instead to a longer journey: from struggle, to success, to significance. Significance ensures that our success matters, that we have a legacy beyond self-aggrandizement and accumulation. A legacy of service and impact.

9. Serenity. Many people today exist in a precarious state, from the cumulative effects of stress, poor sleep, and burnout. For starters, we need to build renewal into our days. Despite our willpower and ambitions, there are limits to our energy. Without exception, we need good habits of rest and renewal.

“In life itself, there is a time to seek inner peace, a time to rid oneself of tension and anxiety. The moment comes when the striving must let up, when wisdom says, ‘Be quiet.’ You’ll be surprised how the world keeps on revolving without your pushing it. And you’ll be surprised how much stronger you are the next time you decide to push.” -John W. Gardner

At a deeper level, we need “sanctuary” in our lives: places and practices of peace that restore our hearts. Places of quiet and tranquility. Together, renewal and sanctuary can lead to serenity. Beyond the striving, beyond the chase, beyond the willfulness, there is an acceptance, a yielding, a comfort with the present moment and a willingness to see things for what they are and ride with the flow of life. The serenity beyond the stress and struggle.

10. Soulfulness. Leading self ultimately takes us beyond the self. We must look to the “far horizon,” as Dag Hammarskjöld urged, not just at the place where we are walking. We must tame our egos and find a deep and abiding humility about the vastness of our universe and a shuddering gratitude for our place in it. This is the place of soulfulness.

“You don’t have a soul, Doctor. You are a soul.” -Walter M. Miller Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz

This is the place where we pause and get quiet, and instead of pushing and fighting, we sit and listen. Sometimes, with grace, we open up a space in our lives where we can begin to make out a call—quiet but steady—that had been sounding all along. Wrapped up in our own struggles and dramas, we were too preoccupied to notice, too consumed to hear.

If we stay with it, really listening, we can begin to fathom its depth.

In the vast well of soulfulness, we come to realize that our lives are not about us alone. Our lives are vessels of connection—a precious, sacred, and mysterious gift.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion). To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from Gregg’s books, check out his Free Guide.